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Brief History of Modern Syria

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December 07, 2012 "Information Clearing House" - Syria fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1516 and remained a part of their Ottoman Empire for four centuries. During this period, Syria witnessed great deterioration in economic, social, and political fields. In 1916, the Arabs took the opportunity of World War I to revolt against the Turkish rule. Arabs received British military help and promises that after the War ends, Arab countries will be granted full independence. On 6 May 1916 , the Ottoman authorities hanged tens of Syrian national leaders in Damascus and Beirut . This day is still celebrated in Syria and Lebanon as the Martyrs' Day. The Arab armies under leadership of Sharif Hussein of Mecca soon achieved victory over the Turks, and in early 1918, Arab and British armies entered Damascus ending 400 years of Ottoman occupation.

Later in 1918, Syria was declared an independent kingdom under King Faisal I, son of Sharif Hussein. However, France and Britain had their own plans in mind. In an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, they decided to divide the Middle East into French and British 'spheres of influence'. Syria was to be put under French mandate. In early 1920, French troops landed on the Syrian coast, after several battles with poorly equipped Syrian rebels, they managed to get the country under their control. In 1923, the League of Nation officially recognized French mandate over Syria .

Syrians decided to resist the new invaders. In 1925, they revolted against the mandate. Several battles took place in Jabal al-Arab region and in Damascus . The capital was severely damaged during French air raids in retaliation for the city's support for rebels. It was until 1936 when France finally accepted to give Syria partial independence according to the Franco-Syrian treaty signed in Paris , but French troops remained on the Syrian soil and continued to influence the Syrian policies. During World War II , Syria witnessed military confrontations between French troops loyal to the Vichy government, allied with the Germans, and Free French troops allied with the British. In 1941, the British army, along with its French allies, occupied the country, and promised full independence after the end of the war.

Again, the French did not live up to their promises. Syrians protested again, and in 29 May 1945 , French troops attacked the Syrian Parliament building in Damascus , sparking more anger and demonstrations. The matter was discussed in the United Nations Security Council, which came up with a resolution demanding France 's withdrawal from Syria . The French had to comply; their last soldier left Syria on 17 April 1946 , which was chosen to be Syria 's National Day.

The early years of independence were marked by political instability. In 1948, the Syrian army was sent to Palestine to fight along with other Arab armies against the newly created State of Israel. The Arabs lost the war, and Israel occupied 78 percent of the area of historical Palestine . In July 1949, Syria was the last Arab country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel . However, It was only the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1949, Syria 's national government was overthrown by a military coup d'etat led by Hussni al-Zaim. Later that year Zaim was overthrown by his colleague Sami al-Hinnawi. Few months later, Hinnawi was overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Sheeshakli. The latter continued to rule the country until 1954, when growing public opposition forced him to resign and leave the country. The national government was restored, but again to face instability, this time coming from abroad. In the mid 1950s, Syria 's relation with the West witnessed some tension with the improving Syrian-Soviet relations. In 1957, Turkey , a close ally of the US and a member of the NATO, massed its troops on the Syrian borders threatening to invade the country.

The western threat was also one of the reasons that helped achieve Syria 's union with Egypt under the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958, with Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser as president. Nasser 's condition to accept union with Syria was dissolving all Syrian political parties. This was one of many reasons that led to the collapse in of the UAR on September 28, 1961 , with a bloodless military coup in Damascus .

In 8 March 1963 , the Baath Arab Socialist Party came to power in a coup known in Syria as the March Revolution. The Baathists dissolved the Parliament and introduced a one-party regime that was destablized by conflicts within the Baath itself. In February 1966, the right wing of Baath assumed leadership of the party, establishing radical Salah Jadid as the strongman of the country.

In the spring of 1967, severe clashes erupted on the borders between Syria and Israel . In April, Israeli officials publicly threatened to invade Syria . Those threats were among other major events that led to the Six Days War between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. On 5 June 1967, Israel started its war against the Arabs, first by invading the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank of Jordan and then on June 10, the Syrian Golan Heights. Within two days of fighting, Syria had lost the strategic region including its main city of Quneitra . On June 11, the warring parties accepted the UN's call for cease-fire. Later in 1967, the UN security council issued its famous 242 resolution calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the Six Day War, in exchange for peace talks and Arab recognition of Israel 's right to exist.

November 16, 1970 ; Hafez al-Assad, then the defense minister, led the Correction Movement that brought Syria stability and security after years of political disturbance. Assad, elected president in 1971 with an overwhelming majority, started to get the nation ready to fight for its occupied land. He mobilized the major political powers in Syria under the National Progressive Front, and got the People's Council (Parliament) back to work. The Syrians did not wait too long. On October, 6th 1973 , Syria and Egypt launched a surprising attack against the Israeli forces in the occupied Sinai and Golan Heights . In few days, Syrian troops nearly managed to liberate all the occupied territories, but Israeli forces managed to recover with a massive US airlfit. Syria soon found itself fighting US and Israel together; and with the fighting on the Egyptian front ceased, the Syrians accepted a UN brokered cease-fire. The security council issued another resolution, 338, calling for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories and for peace talks to achieve a just peace in the Middle East .

Obviously, the Syrians did not want the war to end this way. In early 1974 they launched an attrition war against the Israeli forces in the Golan. The continuous fighting and the Arab moral victory pushed the US into mediating a settlement between Syria and Israel . The US secretary of state Henry Kissinger succeeded in reaching an agreement to disengage Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan. According to the agreement, Syria regained control over a strip of territory in the Golan including the major city of Quneitra . President Assad raised the Syrian flag over the liberated land on June 26, 1974 , but the Syrians were surprised to find that Quneitra and many other towns and villages in the Golan were deliberately destroyed by the Israelis. The city was never rebuilt. UN troops were deployed in the liberated area to prevent any violations of the cease-fire.

In 1975, the Lebanese civil war started. In 1976, Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon upon request from the Lebanese Government. The troops in Lebanon stood against the invading Israeli army in 1982, and full-scale land and air battles took place between the two sides. In 1990, Syria and its allies in Lebanon succeeded in putting an end to the 15-year-old civil war, and Syrian troops remained in Lebanon to maintain security and stability. In 1978, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat signed a separate peace agrrement with Israel , which was a serious blow to Arab solidarity. Syria was among other Arab nations that opposed Sadat's move. If Israelis really wants peace, Assad proposed, they should simply withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967.

In 1980, Iraq launched a war against Iran . Earlier in 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran had ended its alliance with the west and declared its support for the Palestinian cause. Syria thought this was a wrong war, at a wrong time and against the wrong enemy. Very few Arab countries supported the Syrian position. Only two years after his war against Iran ended with nothing but heave losses and casualities, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded the small Arabian Gulf state of Kuwait in August 1990, sparking wide spread international condemnation. Syria participated in the US-led international coalition that was formed to defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait . The Gulf War that followed resulted in the destruction of the Iraqi and imposing harsh international sanctions on Iraq . Another major Arab power was now practically out of the conflict with Israel .

After the Gulf War, Syria accepted the US invitation for an international peace conference on the Middle East . The conference, held in Madrid in November 1991, marked the launch of bilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks. The talks were based on the UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and on the so-called 'land for peace' formula. However, they were stalled for years because of Israel 's continuous refusal to give back any Arab territory. The Arab position was more weakened when the Palestinians and the Jordanians signed separate peace agreements with Israel in 1993 and 1994. Syria and Lebanon , however, vowed to sign peace together or sign not. Syria continued to support the Lebanese resistance fighters led by Hizbollah against the Israeli occupation forces in South Lebanon . In May 2000, Hizbollah succeeded in driving Israel out of Southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation.

Syrian-Israeli peace talks reached a dead end in 1996 with Israel refusing to discuss the complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights . In late 1999, Israel signaled its will to accept such move, and the talks were resumed in the US , this time at a high level between Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sahara'a and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The talks were again stalled in early 2000 when Barak tried to exclude the northeastern shore of the Lake Tiberis from the proposed Israeli withdrawal plan. Syria made it clear that no single inch of the Syrian soil will be given away.

On June 10th 2000 , President Assad died of a heart attack. His son, Bashar al-Assad was elected President on July 10th.

Source : Syrian Embassy Washington Jan 2005

A Short History of Modern Syria

Hamid Dabashi traces the rise of the Assad regime

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Born on June 15,1951 in the Khuzestan province of Iran, Hamid Dabashi received his early education in his hometown and his college education in Tehran, before he moved to the United States, where he received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania - He is currently the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York

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